For anyone who has seen the movie Sideways, it is hard not to wince and cringe when Miles Raymond, the depressed the wine enthusiast, finally opens up his beloved 1961 Cheval Blanc in a paper cup at a fast-food restaurant! It is heart-breaking enough that he felt compelled to drink it in such circumstances all alone, but the worst part is knowing how much better it could have been if he had some decent wine glasses and better serving conditions. How can he possibly appreciate the complex, autumn leaf notes, the roasted herbs or the hint of black truffle from a paper cup? How can a great wine like the Cheval Blanc served at the wrong temperature truly express its full potential without the best cellar temperature and at least a bit of aeration after being bottled and cellared for more than 50 years?
There is a ceremony to wine service and on one extreme, it can appear all too pompous and pretentious. Do we really need a candle when decanting? Does it matter how one twists and opens wine bottles? How much is for show and how much for true appreciation purposes? Many aspects surrounding the service of wine such as removing the foil carefully, wiping the neck and top of the wine bottle, have a practical purpose – but almost as many are more about form than function.
For those who want to maximize their appreciation of a fine bottle of wine, there are basic wine accessories that, for me, are essential. Below is my list of five top wine accessories essential for a wine lover:
1. Wine fridge: Eurocave
I have had the same Eurocave wine fridge for 20 years and it has served me well. I change the charcoal filter every other year and the engine runs smoothly. Although many other wine fridge models exist, the company has been in business for 35 years specializing in wine refrigeration. What sold me about the wine fridge was how well insulated they are – keeping the desired temperature without fluctuation. In addition, the humidity and air circulation to avoid mould is well regulated.
While cheaper wine fridges use plastic parts, Eurocave does not use any inside the cabinet. What really sold me was the fact that these unique wine fridge engines are vibration-free. While people talk about the importance of temperature variation, sunlight and even humidity, not many people understand how important lack of vibration is for a wine that will be cellared for many years. The vibration of a normal fridge can shake the sediment, unsettle the wine and over many years, create an unsettling environment. Wine fridges are more expensive than normal fridges but for long term storage, there is no comparison. Plus, consider the cost spread out over 20-30 years.
There are now many more upscale models from companies like Miele and Gaggenau offering similar features and perhaps better accessories like smoother sliding cabinets inside, all stainless steel frame, etc. These luxury wine fridges make Eurocave look cheap – they are many times more expensive but the functionality is similar. If the fridge is part decoration and it will be displayed prominently in someone’s home, Gaggenau’s latest model double door wine fridge is stunning.
2. Wine Glasses: Spiegelau
The one aspect of wine service that has gone through a true revolution over the past few decades is the concept of the perfect wine glass. Thanks to Georg Riedel who has pioneered the notion of the ideal pairing of wine styles to wine glasses, we now have a cabinet filled with different shaped wine glasses. At a minimum, one needs the white wine glass which can double as the Champagne glass; then the essential Burgundy or Pinot Noir glass and the Cabernet or full bodied red wine glass. For sweet and fortified wine lovers, a smaller glass may also be an important part of their stemware range.
Riedel’s premise, which I agree with, suggests that the shape of the glass, the bowl size and diameter, the rim size and the flow all affect the way we taste and appreciate the wine. After my very first Riedel glass tasting in 1995, I left the room with 24 new glasses – different sizes and shapes for the different wines I enjoy at home. While Riedel now has lots of competition from companies like Zalto, they have a monopoly in the market having purchased Spiegelau, their former competitor, in 2004.
Although I am a fan of Riedel glassware, I find Spiegelau better value for money overall with their sturdy and stylish machine-made glassware ranges that stand up well to dish washers. I especially like their simple and stylish Hybrid range and their elegant Adina range of glasses. These are perfect for entertaining at home and are not that easily broken. A new glassware company called Lucaris from Thailand is making inroads into the industry offering lead-free crystal glasses at very competitive prices compared with their European counterparts.
3. Decanter: Riedel
For stylish decanters, Riedel has no competitor. From their black tie series to the recent snake shaped decanters, they offer a range of decanters that is unchallenged by anyone else in the industry. The quality is very fine – thin crystal with wonderful clarity, chic modern designs updated every year and a huge range of designs to suit diverse tastes.
I am often asked about how and when to decant and the short, easy answer is: for young red wines that are powerful and less than 8 years old, decanting is recommended. However, I have no set rules because with older wines, there is so much bottle variation that one must taste and determine how much aeration the wine needs and can handle. Most of the time, the decision is made from experience. If you want to learn how decanting affects the wine’s flavor and quality, experiment with decanting a young wine for 12 hours, and taste it every hour to see how the flavors and tannins change over time. The purpose for decanting may vary – to soften tannins, open up the flavors, reduce sediment or purely for aesthetic and presentation purposes.
One of the difficulties when decanting a wine is to keep the wine at the desired cool cellar temperature, about 15 degrees Celcius. The shape of the decanter makes it hard to put it back in the wine fridge and to keep it cool. The option is to double decant – this means taking the wine and pouring into a decanter, then rinsing out the original bottle of any sediment and pouring the wine carefully back into the bottle until ready to serve. If a stopper is placed immediately after this process, the wine has less aeration than having it sit in a decanter for several hours.
In general, I prefer to under-decant than over-decant. By that I mean decanting for less time than what I think the wine really needs. On the other hand, if one over-decants, the flavors, taste and the balance of the wine may be negatively altered. It is far safer to have the wine decant in the wine glass rather than risk having it sit in a decanter with the precious aromatics being lost to oxygen. For red wines older than 30 years old, unless it is a first growth, a great vintage or a very powerful wine, I choose not to decant. With lighter bodied aromatic red wines like Burgundy, no matter how young, I prefer not to decant lest I lose some of its wonderful aromatics.
With young wines, especially young Cabernet and Syrah-based reds for example from Napa Valley or Northern Rhone, a good decanter is essential. Allowing some oxygen exchange to soften the tannins and bring forth the flavors makes a huge difference in the appreciation of these young wines.
4. Wine Opener: Screwpull Lever
I have tried numerous wine openers including the Rabbit, the Durand and various air pressure openers. They have their points but usually I go back to my basic Screwpull lever model that I have had for more than 12 years. While the traditional waiter’s screw looks very professional when opening wine bottles, the most convenient and fastest way to open a bottle is with the Screwpull lever.
Use a good, sharp cutter for the foil, then any Screwpull model with a lever will do a quick, fast job. There are many Screwpull lever models now, from the basic black handle to the much heavier and more expensive stainless steel. These differences are purely aesthetic, the Screwpull works well regardless of what type of material is used to make the handle.
5. Wine Notebook: Hermes
For me, a good wine notebook is one of the essentials to understanding and continuing to learn about wine. How else do you capture the flavor of a special bottle of wine if it isn’t instantaneously written down? How else do you remember the long German wine names and numerous vineyards in Burgundy? Telephones, tablets and other portable electronic devices can help capture the images and even note a few words hastily typed in the small keyboard. However, there is no substitute to writing down a tasting note by hand that helps you remember and embed the flavor profile in your long term memory bank.
There are numeros wine notebooks from the small moleskins to the inexpensive pocket notebooks bound by a metal spiral. However, I must admit that my little brown wine notebook by Hermes (an expensive splurge at the time) has served me well over the past 20 years. The beauty of the book is that the leather bound frame lasts forever and the inside refillable blank booklets allows you to continually replace the contents. I am now on refill book number 71.
There are a number of other important wine accessories – a solid wine bucket to chill wines, a good wine carrier with thermal insulation, a wine stopper to store the wine if the bottle has remaining wine left over. These are helpful but for me not essential. I am not a big fan of the vacuum pump which can strip the wine of its aroma when the air is sucked out; I am also not enthusiastic about the various wine aerators in the market and the clef du vin which ‘ages’ the wine with each dip. I would rather the wine open up naturally and slowly inside a decanter or an appropriate wine glass. And if the wine is so young and tannic that decanting is not good enough, then the wine is too young to be enjoyed anyway.
Reprinted with permission from Noblesse China